Bombshell 400-page report finds Southern Baptist leaders routinely silenced sexual abuse survivors

Houston Chronicle [Houston TX]

May 22, 2022

By Robert Downen and John Tedesco

For 20 years, leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention — including a former president now accused of sexual assault — routinely silenced and disparaged sexual abuse survivors, ignored calls for policies to stop predators, and dismissed reforms that they privately said could protect children but might cost the SBC money if abuse victims later sued.

Those are just a few findings of a bombshell, third-party investigation into decades of alleged misconduct by Southern Baptist leaders that was released Sunday, nearly a year after 15,000 SBC church delegates demanded their executive committee turn over confidential documents and communications as part of an independent review of abuse reports that were purportedly mishandled or concealed since 2000.

The historic, nearly 400-page report details how a small, insular and influential group of leaders “singularly focused on avoiding liability for the SBC to the exclusion of other considerations” to prevent abuse. The report was published by Guidepost Solutions, an independent firm that conducted 330 interviews and reviewed two decades of internal SBC files in the seven-month investigation.

“Survivors and others who reported abuse were ignored, disbelieved, or met with the constant refrain that the SBC could take no action due to its (structure) — even if it meant that convicted molesters continued in ministry with no notice or warning to their current church or congregation,” Guidepost’s report concluded.

Guidepost investigated the SBC’s 86-member executive committee, the convention’s highest governing entity. The firm’s investigators had unprecedented access to the SBC’s leadership and reviewed thousands of internal documents — including previously confidential communications between SBC lawyers.

The investigation sheds new and unprecedented light on the backroom politicking and deceit that has stymied attempts at reforms and allowed for widespread mistreatment of child sexual abuse victims. And it exhaustively corroborates what many survivors have said for decades: that Southern Baptist leaders downplayed their own abuse crisis and instead prioritized shielding the SBC – and its hundreds of millions of dollars in annual donations — from lawsuits by abuse victims.

Among the findings:

  • A small group of SBC leaders routinely misled other members of the SBC’s executive committee on abuse issues, and rarely mentioned the frequent and persistent warnings and pleas for help from survivors. Fearing lawsuits, leaders similarly failed to inform the SBC’s 15 million members that predators and pedophiles were targeting churches.
  • Longtime SBC leaders kept a private list of abusive pastors and ministers despite claiming for years that such an idea was impractical for stopping predators and impossible to adopt because of the SBC’s decentralized structure. Compiled since 2007, the roster contained the names of 703 offenders, most with an SBC connection. A few still work at churches in the SBC or other denominations.
  • Former SBC President Johnny Hunt is accused of sexually assaulting a woman weeks after his presidential tenure ended in 2010. The woman said Hunt manipulated her into silence by saying a disclosure of the incident would harm the SBC’s churches. Four other people corroborated much of the woman’s allegations to Guidepost. Hunt denied the allegations, but resigned from the SBC’s North American Mission Board days before the report was published.

The woman, who asked to remain anonymous, said she is still working through trauma from the incident and the ensuing years of mental, emotional and spiritual abuse she said she endured from Hunt and others. “We’ve been silent for 12 years,” she told the Chronicle. “And that is what trauma does – it takes your voice.”

The report is by far the SBC’s most consequential response yet to widespread abuses detailed in Abuse of Faith, a 2019 investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News that found hundreds of SBC church leaders and volunteers have been criminally charged with sex crimes since 2000. The series also detailed numerous incidents in which denominational leaders mishandled, ignored or concealed warnings that SBC churches were being targeted by predators.

Sexual abuse has since dominated the agenda of the SBC, the nation’s second-largest faith group. Last year, a letter was leaked in which a former top leader, Russell Moore, accused members of the executive committee of mafia-style intimidation and retaliation against him for his work with abuse survivors. Uproar over the letter and other recent abuse scandals ultimately prompted SBC church delegates to demand the Guidepost investigation of the executive committee last summer.

In a statement, executive committee leaders said they were grieved by the report and committed to “doing all we can to prevent future instances of sexual abuse” in churches.”This is the beginning of a season of listening, lamenting and learning,” Executive Committee Chairman Rolland Slade said in the statement. 

In response to Abuse of Faith, Southern Baptists passed some reforms by equipping a committee to handle complaints against churches. Guidepost found that while members of the committee had good intentions, they lacked training, operated with no written policies and failed to respond promptly to victims who contacted them.

Survivors and experts say the investigation could be a blueprint for other, similarly structured secular organizations or religious denominations — the latter accounting for tens of millions of American Christians — while also illuminating failures to confront the abuse crisis in the SBC, a collective of 47,000 self-governed churches.

“This really is a groundbreaking process for the Convention, and for religious institutions as a whole,” said Rachael Denhollander, a prominent lawyer and abuse survivor who advises the SBC on abuse policies. “It’s critically important because it’s a response to survivors who have been advocating for change and help, literally for decades.”

Mishandling complaints

Guidepost found the SBC’s broader opposition to reforms was largely driven by three longtime lawyers for the faith group: August “Augie” Boto, who retired in 2019; and James Guenther and James Jordan, two law partners who resigned after decades of service to the SBC in October, once the Guidepost investigation began.

For years, under their guidance, anyone who contacted the national office to report a suspected case of sexual abuse at a Southern Baptist church was either met with silence or told that the SBC had no power to take action against congregations that concealed abuses.

The SBC’s governing documents allowed for the removal of churches that ordained women or “endorse” homosexuality, but leaders said they had no such oversight when it came to churches led by convicted sex offenders. “Behind the curtain, the lawyers were advising to say nothing and do nothing, even when the callers were identifying predators still in SBC pulpits,” Guidepost found.

SBC leaders insisted they were constrained by their own structure: Unlike the Catholic Church, there’s no Pope or bishops in the SBC, nor are there uniform requirements or processes for ordinations or hiring processes. Each Southern Baptist church makes its own decisions. So when the SBC received a tip about a possible predator, leaders made no effort to contact authorities or learn if the accused perpetrator was still in ministry, Guidepost found.

Beyond a handful of lawyers and top officials, most of the remaining trustees of the executive committee were kept in the dark about abuse issues, the report found. In one 2008 incident, SBC spokesman Roger “Sing” Oldham received a call from a church staffer who believed his pastor was engaged in a relationship with a 14-year-old girl. The pastor had directed the church employee to provide the girl a cell phone and set up the “speed dial” function so she could contact the pastor directly. The pastor didn’t want his wife to know.

In a 2008 legal memo to Boto, Guenther advised that Oldham avoid gathering any more information about the abuse allegations, and to tell the tipster to contact a lawyer and decide whether to contact authorities. Guenther concluded that Oldham, Boto and the executive committee had no “legal duty to take any further action.”

Others who raised concerns received no response at all. In 2013, an anonymous complaint was forwarded to Boto and Oldham alleging that a pastor at a large SBC church had sexually abused someone as a youth pastor. The tipster sent the complaint via the “contact us” link on the SBC’s website. Two months later, Boto told Guenther that he decided not to respond. Guenther agreed that saying nothing “may be the thing to do.”

Guenther suggested in his 2008 memo that the executive committee establish a written policy on handling sexual abuse communications. But Guidepost investigators found no evidence that a policy was ever written or adopted.

Neither Boto nor Oldham could be reached for comment on Sunday. 

As he was pushing back against modest reforms and downplaying survivors’ concerns, Boto financially supported and testified to the character of a former USA Gymnastics coach who was convicted of child sex offenses. Guidepost found that Boto told the man how to get in touch with children – including Boto’s own – through their parents so as to not raise suspicion from “the courts” while he appealed his prison sentence. Boto represented himself as a Southern Baptist Convention official during those court proceedings, and gained special permission to minister to the man while he was behind bars, Guidepost said.

As survivors and advocates continued requesting reforms, Boto and other leaders denigrated them. In one email, Boto equated the work of two outspoken abuse survivors, Christa Brown and Denhollander, to the devil. “This whole thing should be seen for what it is,” Boto wrote of their efforts to curb sexual abuse. “It is a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism. It is not the gospel. It is not even a part of the gospel.”

In 2019, after then-President J.D. Greear asked executive committee members to scrutinize 10 churches named in the Chronicle’s reporting, Boto worked behind the scenes to end the reviews. He called pastors directly and apologized for Greear’s request. One of the pastors he called knowingly had an admitted abuser on staff at the time.

Boto retired from the SBC in 2019, and was later entangled in a lawsuit filed by the SBC’s Fort Worth seminary, as well as Baylor University, for his role in an alleged “secret coup” to siphon millions of dollars in scholarship money from the schools. The alleged plot began days after Boto’s longtime friend and evangelical leader Paige Patterson was ousted as president of the Fort Worth seminary for, among other things, saying he wanted to meet with a student who said she was raped on videotape at gunpoint so that Patterson could “break her down.”

As part of the lawsuit settlement, Boto was banned from serving on a national SBC entity, as well as taking leadership roles at any charity or nonprofit in Texas.

Tracking predators

Boto claimed for years that the SBC had no authority to create a database of abusers that could be used as a resource for churches to perform better background checks. Survivors had for years said the SBC’s lack of structure made it easy for predators to move undetected between churches, and that a database would help track abusers.

Guenther also supported a database, saying the idea could be helpful in confidential memos to Boto. But publicly, Boto pushed back against the idea, saying that it would be no more effective than public sex offender registries, and that they could not force churches to report ministers to it because SBC churches are autonomous.

An executive committee staffer later studied the feasibility of the proposal, which has long been sought by survivors. After the staffer detailed to Boto that the proposal did not violate the SBC’s structures of governance, Boto allegedly questioned the staffer’s mental health, Guidepost said.

That did not stop Boto and Oldham from keeping their own list of sexual abusers in churches. In 2007, they started to maintain a private roster of abusive ministers that eventually included more than 700 offenders, most affiliated with SBC churches.

In a May 2019 email to Boto and then-Executive Committee Chairman Ronnie Floyd, Oldham wrote that for the “past decade,” he had regularly been sending Boto news reports about Baptist ministers who had been arrested for sexual abuse. Boto chimed in: “Yes. We are collecting them, and may even post them in some way, but we’d have to really examine the potential liabilities.”

Guidepost found that at least nine of the offenders on the list still lead churches in the SBC or other denominations. “Despite collecting these reports for more than 10 years, there is no indication that Dr. Oldham, Mr. Boto, or anyone else, took any action to ensure that the accused ministers were no longer in positions of power at SBC churches,” Guidepost said, adding it will share its findings with officials to see if further action is warranted.

In 2019, when Chronicle reporters approached Boto and Oldham ahead of the newspaper’s first reports on SBC abuse, the two men said they were upset to learn of a large-scale abuse issue. Boto said he was angered by some of the numbers provided to him by reporters, but that SBC leaders were powerless over local church decisions.

Floyd and other SBC leaders didn’t request a copy of Oldham’s list of offenders and they didn’t ask any questions about it. “The mounting outcry about sexual abuse appeared to aggravate some within the SBC and was viewed as a distraction,” the report stated.

Johnny Hunt

Other top SBC leaders are accused of being abusers themselves – including former SBC President Johnny Hunt, who was accused in the report of sexually assaulting a woman from his church in July 2010, one month after his presidency ended because of term limits.

The woman told Guidepost that Hunt entered her condo in Panama City Beach, where they were vacationing together and staying next door. The woman, who is more than two decades younger than Hunt, was home alone. She told Guidepost that, after prodding her with inappropriate questions such as if she was “wild growing up,” Hunt then pinned her down, groped her and pulled her clothes off, the report alleged. The woman said Hunt assaulted her a second time before leaving. Days later, the woman and her husband, a pastor of 25 years who worked with Hunt, were called to a meeting. 

Hunt then said he had kissed her and touched her breasts over clothing, and tried to pull her shorts down, but that it was consensual, Guidepost wrote. Hunt then told her husband “thank God I didn’t consummate the relationship,” the husband told Guidepost. Hunt denied most of their claims and took a public break from ministry for what he said was exhaustion. Guidepost investigators said Hunt did not seem credible in his interviews with them.

Hunt resigned this weekend from the North American Mission Board, the SBC’s massive domestic evangelism wing. In a statement, he said he had not yet read the report but that he has “never abused anybody” and “vigorously” denied the allegations. 

Next month, SBC church delegates will meet for their annual meeting and discuss the findings of the report, as well as a slew of recommendations from Guidepost and the SBC Task Force that assisted them.

Among the proposals: Establish a permanent administrative entity to oversee training and comprehensive sexual-abuse reforms. Such an entity could create a website where SBC members can voluntarily submit photos and details of sexual offenders as a resource for fellow churches

But such reforms won’t be possible if the culture of silence continues to pervade the SBC, said Jennifer Lyell, an abuse survivor and former SBC employee. The SBC’s publishing arm, Baptist Press, posted an online article in 2019 that mischaracterized Lyell’s allegations of abuse against a seminary professor. The SBC edited her story to read as if she was consensually involved with the professor.

“Ms. Lyell was thereafter subject to vicious attacks, including harsh and hurtful comments on Baptist Press Facebook – she was called a bitter jealous woman and an adulterer, and some suggested she should be fired,” the Guidepost report stated.

After months of pleas by Lyell, Baptist Press finally retracted the story and issued an apology.

“The silence of bystanders and other SBC leaders will keep destroying people if there is not a major (MAJOR) cultural shift,” Lyell wrote on social media.

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